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An Unfinished Life

The Healing Power of Tragedy

It seems a bit early in the fall film season for distributors to be trotting out their Oscar contenders, but after weathering a summer woefully devoid of quality films, I won't look a gift horse like An Unfinished Life in the mouth. Already being compared to last year's Million Dollar Baby, Lasse Hallstrom's (The Shipping News, Chocolat) latest is one of the best films of the year and eloquently explores the transformative power of tragedy.

Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) and her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) are on the run from Jean's abusive ex-boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis). Down on her luck and low on cash, Jean grudgingly heads to Wyoming for a reunion with her estranged father-in-law, Einar Gilykson (Robert Redford). Einar extends no warm embrace towards his daughter-in-law. In fact, he barely tolerates her presence.

While gruff and aloof towards Jean, Einar's harsh exterior belies a soft underbelly as he warms towards his newly discovered granddaughter, Griff. Redford does an excellent job of simultaneously portraying Einar as a cantankerous bastard and a caring man. Einar seems execrable initially given his harsh treatment of Jean, but then becomes much more affable in a scene where he roughs up two young drunkards who harass a waitress in a local diner.

Rounding out the cast is Einar's buddy, Mitch Bradley (brilliantly played by Morgan Freeman). Mitch exhibits a level of forgiveness that is baffling to Einar, seemingly embracing his enemies (a grizzly bear that mauled him). Freeman's performance is again Oscar caliber and comparable to his performance in Million Dollar Baby. His sensitive and forgiving characterization complements that of the grudge bearing Einar.

The nucleus around which An Unfinished Life seems to revolve is the bear that mauled Mitch. This bear haunts Einar's ranch, clearly representing the various baggage each member of Einar's little dysfunctional family is bearing. Hallstrom manages to convey his message about embracing life's tragedies and disappointments as opportunities for growth with all but a few drops of saccharine.

One can only hope that An Unfinished Life is a portent of what will come to the theaters in the waning months of 2005. Hallstrom has scored again with a film that mercifully lacks the bombast of the legion of summer spectacles and instead engages the audience with complicated, authentic characters and a story that inspires.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars